This File Last Updated: 2009/12/20

The Chatyn (Khatyn) Memorial

Memorial to the 186 villages in Belarus burned with their inhabitants during WWII

Note: Refer to The Katyn Forest Massacre for information about the massacre of numerous Polish and Belarusian officers massacred near what is today's Smolensk, Russia

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[ Photograph: Chatyn (1991) by V. Baranousky ]
Photo Credits: All photo's on this Web page are from the postcard set by Belarus Publishers, Chatyn, photography by Vitaly Baranousky; Mensk, Belarus (1996); front cover (above).

From the entry in the Historical Dictionary of Belarus (Zaprudnik, 1998; p. 73-74):

A memorial complex commemorating the victims of the annihilation of the entire village of Chatyn (Khatyn), northeast of Mensk, during the German occupation of Belarus. In March 1943, Chatyn's 26 houses with their inhabitants (149 people, including 75 children) were burned by a German battalion. The vast memorial, spreading over 50 hectares, was opened in 1969 and became a major visiting place for local and foreign tourists and delegations.

In addition to the preceding entry from the Historical Dictionary of Belarus, the following background information helps explain why the Soviet Union chose the destroyed village site "Chatyn" in Belarus to be the representative village for the museum complex, and to confuse foreigners about the major Soviet NKVD atrocities known as the The Katyn Forest Massacre (near Smolensk) in Russia:

. . . the Soviets obliterated references to [the] Katyn [forest, etc.] on maps and in official reference works. Then, in 1969, Moscow did something strange that many believe was further calculated to confuse the issue further: it chose a small village named Chatyn (Khatyn) as the site for Belarus's national war memorial. There was no apparent reason for the selection. Chatyn was one of 9,200 Belarusian villages the Germans had destroyed and one of more than a hundred where they had killed civilians in retaliation for partisan attacks. In Latin transliteration, however, "Katyn" and "Chatyn" (Khatyn) look and sound alike, though they are spelled and pronounced quite differently in Russian and Belarusian. When President Nixon visited the USSR in July 1974, he toured the Chatyn memorial at his hosts' insistence. Sensing that the Soviets were exploiting the visit for propaganda purposes, The New York Times headlined its coverage of the tour: "Nixon Sees Chatyn, a Soviet Memorial, Not Katyn Forest." (The Times probably got it right. During the Vietnam war, the Soviets frequently took visiting US peace activists to Chatyn.)

News Article: Khatyn Truth film disproves official version of tragedy

Khatyn Truth is a 35-minute documentary film, first run yesterday [Tuesday, June 17, 2008] in Minsk. It shows the tragedy of Khatyn village (Lahoisk district), burnt with all its dwellers on 22 March 1943.

According to historian Ihar Kuznyatsou, film advisor, the film disproves the official version of burning Khatyn by Nazi occupants, BelaPAN reports.

Khatyn Truth suggests the facts that the village was burnt by a Ukrainian police squad. Kuznyatsou emphasises the collaborators committed a much more murderous crime than the Germans had ordered.

The Belarusian documentary film is to be presented at international documentary film festivals and broadcast on foreign TV channels."

Source: Charter 97, June 18, 2008

Other Information about the memorial. . . .
The massacre at Chatyn under the command of the German officer Dirlewanger occurred on March 22, 1943. A very odd and tragic coincidence: one of Belarus' greatest patriots, Kastus Kalinouski, was hanged in Vilnius by czarist troops on March 22, 1864. Chatyn is a memorial to the 186 villages that were destroyed in a similar manner but were never rebuilt. (Belarus was almost totally devasted by the war, by all who occupied the land, but most villages were rebuilt after World War II.)
Regarding the photograph of the sculpture at the top of this page: The elderly, emaciated man carrying the child is reported to be either the father or grandfather and in his arms is his dead son (grandson), having found the body in the ashes of Chatyn. . . .

My personal reaction to the memorial. . . .
I visited Chatyn in 1997 and 1998. There is no regularly scheduled mass transit to the memorial; one must go by tour bus or car, and I traveled by car with friends. As one of the photo's from another Web site shows, the highway marker notes the memorial is 5 kilometers east of the main highway.
I have no idea what someone would think of the memorial who isn't familiar with Belarusian history, or for someone who hasn't lived through a war. (We Americans, in general, have not experienced what most people of the world have: war coming to our own homes, destroying almost everything and everyone around us, the drawn-out, painful recovery for many years after the war, and we probably don't "see" Chatyn as the Belarusians do.)
To me, the place seemed to carry an unimaginable weight and unbearable sadness; so many people had died and so senselessly. But at the same time the bright sky, and the almost too green trees and fields, seemed to shout with their beauty and intensity! (Not long before I made these visits, I went to a performance of the Polish composer H. M. Gorecki's 3rd Symphony. Op. 36 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs"), which is also about the horror of World War II. I kept hearing its slow sad, sad melody as I also slowly walked among the monuments. . . .)
[ Photograph: Chatyn (1991) by V. Baranousky ]

The former village is in a beautiful setting. A meadow surrounded by woods, very green with plenty of water from the wells. There are several different memorials there, almost as though someone kept trying to design something to honor the dead, but couldn't decide what the best memorial would be.

The memorial has several components, some more powerful in their imagery than others.

The memorial site itself is certainly solemn and funereal: The most powerful aspect of the memorial for me was, in the quiet of this forest meadow, where people only seem to whisper, the dull clang of a solitary bell at the top of a concrete column (that evokes the chimney of a former house), as though muffled by the weight of the story and pain of the place, with a different solitary bell striking at regular intervals, a haunting reminder of the many lives lost. (There is a concrete column topped by a bell at each house site within the memorial.)

[ Photograph: Chatyn (1991) by V. Baranousky ]
[ Plaque at one of the village home sites ]

Yaskevich, Anton Antonavich
Yaskevich, Alena Sidarauna
Yaskevich, Vanda
Yaskevich, Nadzya (9 years old)
Yaskevich, Uladzik (7 years old)
Yaskevich, Viktar
Yaskevich, Vera
Yaskevich, Tolik (7 weeks old)

Plaques on each of the house sites list the names and ages of each of the family members who died there (making real every parent, child, baby, and grandparent), providing human dimensions to the incomprehensible numbers of the murdered. Gray sidewalks connect each empty house site with the next (you can almost smell the ashes), with tall, green grass so bright and vibrant, brushing against the grey and black of the memorials.
[ Photograph: Chatyn (1991) by V. Baranousky ]

Near the main entry, are three birch trees in three of four quadrants, with an eternal flame in the fourth quadrant, memorializing the one out of 4 Belarusians who were killed in World War II ("The Great Patriotic War," as the Soviets refer to it).

The field of markers with their vials of soil from each of the hundreds of other villages that had been burned, appeared to be in disrepair and possibly had been vandalized over the years (at least at the time of my visits).

[ Photograph: Chatyn (1991) by V. Baranousky ]
[ Photograph: Chatyn (1991) by V. Baranousky ]

There are additional memorial areas as well.

Links and Related Information

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Original content and overall form ©1996-2010 by Peter Kasaty : All Rights Reserved. Last Updated:  2009/12/20
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